India details J&K move before US leadersUpdated: Nov 16, 2019 00:07 IST
Washington: US lawmakers expressed concern once again regarding the restrictions and detentions in Jammu and Kashmir during the hearing of a congressionally mandated human rights body on Thursday. The body has been charged with fielding a “lop-sided” panel of witnesses, mostly known for their hostility towards India.
The issues raised by them and most witnesses, including one official and activists, were the same as those at a congressional hearing last month, which has been privately acknowledged among India watchers as a “debacle” for India.
Hence the Indian embassy was better organised this time. It tried to reach out to the more than 80 lawmakers on the Tom Lantos Human Rights Committee, which held the hearing; brief the official star witness, Arunima Bhargava of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), thoroughly; push Indian Americans to lobby for their respective lawmakers; and make sure at least one witness would be “fair and balanced”.
The strategy appears to have worked. The effort was to “level the playing field,” said Harsh Vardhan Shringla, the Indian ambassador to the US.
Sunanda Vashisht, a Kashmiri Pandit turned writer, turned out to be India’s best defence at the hearing. “This is a lop-sided panel,” she said at one stage, exasperated at the interventions from fellow panelists, and, at the same time, haranguing lawmakers for ignoring the role played by Pakistan-backed terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir. “We have to be aware of the fact. All deaths have been happening due to terrorists trained by Pakistan. This doublespeak is not helping India in any way.”
Her criticism of the “lop-sided” nature of the panel of witnesses appears to have hit home. A senior member of the commission, who has been accused of calling a “second hearing in a short period of time” on India, is said to have “apologised” to Vashisht after the hearing. “Her participation was equal to five other panelists,” he said.
Vashisht had challenged other witnesses and lawmakers as she argued for a balance between human life and human rights.
The Indian strategy and aim was to “balance” the narrative emerging at the hearing, and contain the discordant voices. The criticism of the Indian government’s actions in Jammu and Kashmir on August 5, when Article 370 was abrogated changing the constitutional status of the state, and since, came largely from the same set of Democratic lawmakers as the last time — Sheila Jackson Lee, who heads the Pakistan caucus in the US House of Representatives, David Trone and David Cicilline, described as the liberal extreme of the Democratic party, and Pramila Jayapal, an Indian American who has been among the most aggressive.
“I am deeply concerned by the Indian government’s actions in Kashmir, to detain people without charge, severely limit communications and block third parties from visiting,” Jayapal said in an exchange with Bhargava. These measures are “harmful for our close and critical relationship,” she added.
Bhargava, who acknowledged India was working on some of her concerns based on an advance briefing by Indian diplomats, said, “USCIRF is concerned about reports that the Indian government restricted freedom of movement and assembly in Jammu and Kashmir, limiting people’s ability to attend prayers and participate in religious ceremonies; forestalling any large gatherings, including for religious purposes, and for certain communities, curtailing access to healthcare and other basic services.”
“The USCIRF has also seen reports of mosques being closed; imams and Muslim community leaders arrested and detained; and violence and threats towards residents and businesses in particular,” she added.
The restrictions on cellphones and movements and their impact on daily life were among the key concerns that came up repeatedly during the hearing.
The USCIRF has been critical of the Indian government for years, and its annual reports have tended to push India towards a classification of countries that are deemed by the US to be violators of religious freedom. Bhargava, one of the body’s top officials, reflected those concerns at the hearing.
“Religious freedom conditions in India experienced a downward trend in 2018, a trend that has unfortunately continued and appears to be accelerating in 2019,” she said.
The USCRIF tweeted at the end a video of the exchange between Bhargava and Jayapal, saying, “So great to see two strong Indian women having this conversation.”